By MICHAEL PERKINS
ON JANUARY 13, 2009, BARACK OBAMA, a man of many firsts both personal and political, created a benchmark in the history of photography as well, becoming the first President of the United States to have his official portrait created with a digital camera. Data nerds will note that the exposure was made with Pete Souza’s Canon EOS 5D Mark II camera without flash and settings of 1/125 sec., f/10, ISO 100, and 105mm. In the interval between that time and this, the break with analog film-based photography seems both natural and inevitable, and so the shot has one key thing in common with the very first presidential portrait, in that it was taken using the most advanced technology of its time, changing forever the way we thought of “official” records of the Chief Executive.
One hundred and sixty-six years prior, in 1843, John Quincy Adams, some fifteen years after the end of his presidency, sat for what, today, is the oldest surviving original photographic portrait of an American president. The term original, when speaking of early photographs, must be given a bit of additional context. The process known as daguerreotype was, at the time of Adams’ sitting at Philip Haas’ Washington studio, only four years old. Each photograph was printed directly on glass plates, and were therefore one-of-a-kind images in the truest sense, as no means for printing copies of photos would exist until the creation of negative film by George Eastman nearly half a century later. The fragility of daguerrotypes added to the special quality afforded them as keepsakes in the nineteenth century, as they were quite literally irreplaceable. And then there was the arduous process of getting a usable exposure made in the first place. In President Adams’ diary of the day, he remarked that, upon arriving for his appointment, he found
“...Horace Everett [U.S. Congressman from Vermont’s third district] there for the same purpose of being facsimiled. Haas took him once, and then with his consent took me three times, the second of which he said was very good—for the operation is delicate: subject to many imperceptible accidents, and fails at least twice out of three times.”
Full disclosure: In fact, the very first presidential portrait was taken of the spectacularly unlucky William Henry Harrison, the first president to die in office just one month after taking the oath, likely due to complications of pneumonia brought on by failing to dress warmly enough during inclement Inauguration Day ceremonies. Indeed, a photographic portrait was made of Harrison on March 4, 1841, mere days before he fell ill. However, the original of the image is said to be lost, surviving only in copies, while the Adams image, now on display at the National Portrait Gallery, is the very same glass-plate photo taken two years later by Haas. Adams probably deserves the distinction of hanging in the NPG for an additional reason, in that he was one of the primary forces behind the creation of the Smithsonian Institution, of which the Portrait Galley is a subsidiary.
Like Barack Obama, Adams had additional historical mileposts attached to his fame as a photographic subject. Serving in the House of Representatives for many years following his presidency, he was the last living tie to the Founding Fathers, one of the men who, as they sing in Hamilton, was “in the room where it happened”. Photography was lauded, at its birth, as one of the proudest achievements of the Industrial Revolution, but many feared that it might be a merely mechanical medium, devoid of the soul of painted portraiture. And yet, since its very beginnings, it has not only performed a purely reportorial function, but has also anchored us to all ages in a most un-machinelike fashion, preserving the essences of our humanity and allowing us to sing Hail to many a Chief.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
Each friend represents a world in us, a world possibly not born until they arrive, and it is only by this meeting that a new world is born.” – Anais Nin
IF YOU WANT TO LEARN EVERYTHING YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT A PERSON, observe them in a relationship.
Alone, each of us is a sealed chamber of secrets. Matched with just one other living thing, however, an individual’s inner truths begin to seep out, to display themselves like buds slowly blossoming into blooms. Photographers concentrate mightily on solo portraits, and that is certainly a treasure trove of its own, but the visual grammar of a portrait is completely different than that of a group shot, and provides completely distinct information. The self has its native language, but when we are placed in a situation with others, be it a simple social chat or a key interaction, we are translated into a different tongue altogether.
We experience joy, regret, conflict, triumph as individuals, and a photograph can certainly read pieces of all of that (or at least imply it), but once we are in twosomes, threesomes, and so forth, all those emotional states are measured differently. The signals become amplified, more easily detected. Of course, people in conversations can be presenting completely false versions of themselves (spoiler alert) , but, in an image, the mask can be seen to slip, if only a little, revealing at least a smidgeon of the real person beneath the guise.
Admittedly, a photograph is not an x-ray, and so anything it records is open to interpretation, including our guess about the actual mindset of the subject. Translation: the camera can easily lie, or transmit a falsehood. Once that untruth is out in the open, however, the viewer is the jury that determines whether what’s on display is fact or fiction. My point is that palpably different things are in view in pictures of social interaction than in images of isolated individuals, and so all shooters should be conversant in mining both areas. The fact that the faces of the two women in the top picture are concealed is no more an inhibitor to our discovery than the plainer display of expressions of the duo on the subway. Our minds will devise their own ways of decoding these interactions. The fact remains that a whole extra level of view into the human mind/spirit can be achieved in watching people interact. For me, it’s the difference between shooting through a window to catch a glimpse of a house’s interior and being invited inside the place for a better look.
But that, as they say on the shrink’s couch, is just me.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
FACES ARE A LOT LIKE SKIES ON A DAY OF WIND-DRIVEN OVERCAST, with emotions sweeping swiftly across their features, alternatively lightening, darkening, producing bursts of color and dusks of shadow, all in the space of a few seconds. The mood changes that play upon our faces from moment to moment are so far-reaching that, in a static medium like still photography, we often feel we cannot create a single image that “tells all” about even the most familiar people in our lives. There are times when more than one feeling is layered over others, with only one state of mind captured in a single frame.
Or so I used to believe.
As stated in previous pages of this small-town newspaper, my parents have had both the great good luck and the jarring challenge of living very close to the century mark. With geography separating us from each other most of the time, the ticking of the clock adds a fearful urgency to my attempts to photograph them in what is essentially their ninth inning. As to how I can shoot them, formal sittings are largely a thing of the past: both are well beyond forced posing, having said “cheese” more times than the entire population of Wisconsin, leaving me to maintain a constant vigil for the unguarded, and potentially revelatory, moment. And that’s where a latter-day gift of sorts has burst onto the scene. Far from the emotionally simple “happy Dad”, “sad Mom” pictures that were emblematic of their earlier years, I now see their faces as aggregations, multi-level combinations of several emotions all registering in the same moment. It’s as if their features have become one of those plexiglass “how it’s made” models of a complex airplane that shows all of the craft’s inner workings at once, or, in simpler terms, as if my camera had been transformed into a CT scanner.
One very effective ignition point for seeing this layering in my father, for example, comes when he is consuming what we will lightly call The News Of The Day. One need not comment on specific issues to recognize that the present world is a very complicated place, and that, when you are ninety, it’s tough not to filter everything through decades of comparable experiences. In watching Dad watch the world these days, I can simultaneously see the many versions of him that I’ve learned to recognize throughout the years. Curiosity? Certainly, but also consternation, hope, bewilderment, sadness, wisdom, and, to a greater and greater degree, resignation. The world is racing forward, not quite yet without him on board, but certainly nowhere near the front of the parade. And since I trail him in age by twenty-three years, I have not yet seen all that he has seen, but I certainly feel a version of his own feelings of accumulation, even from my more limited lookout point above life’s battlefield. The sheer weight of all those feelings is fully one-third stronger in him than in me, but my own legacy of sensations has taught me to detect (and hopefully capture in my box) stories that say much more about his inner mind than just “happy” or “sad”. His face, and that of my mother’s as well, is now more than just familiar: it’s prophetic. I try to see what he and she are teaching…..a very strange, elegant and sometimes terrifying tapestry. Still, even though the view is often obscured by tears, I will never blink or look away. This is a premium seat I occupy now, and I have paid handsomely for the privilege of sitting here.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHY’S FIRST HUGE SURGE OF POPULARITY served notice on the painting world that there would, going forward, be more than one way to capture the human essence in a portrait. Initially dismissed as a mere recording device by panicky daubers the world over, the camera soon earned a place at the table by revealing just as much of the inner souls of its subjects as even the most trained brush, albeit by different roads. One of these, of course, was the eye, characterized as “the window to the soul.” To some, it seemed that painters merely drew your gaze to the eye, whereas the camera drilled straight through it.
Whether you share that view or shrink in horror from it, the fact is that generations of technical treatises have centered on the vital importance of engaging the eye in portraits: getting the right “catch light” spark reflected in it, making it the primary focus of the face, even zeroing out sharpness in the entire frame except in the orb’s immediate vicinity. It’s accepted wisdom that the eye sells the face and the face sells the picture. But what of faces that have another kind of story?
In the above image, we are, as viewers, denied access to the birdwatcher’s eyes, unless you interpret her binoculars as a kind of abstract substitute. But does that make the picture not a portrait? Using every other feature and prop available to the shooter, is there insufficient evidence to properly tell her story? Are we at all uncertain of her intent, enthusiasm, state of mind? Is her zeal any less obvious without those windows to the soul in sight? Or to think of it another way, would the picture have any greater narrative power if her eyes were visible?
Portraits are certainly anchored by their most provocative features, riveting our gaze to precise points of drama as urged by talented photographers. However, that list of elements is not absolute, any more than a blue sky is an absolute for a painter. Faces can spell out a message in upper-case neon letters or whisper it in muted shadows. But other than that, everything else is on the table. Portraits are a process, not a recipe.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE IMAGE SHARING GROUP UTATA, which operates within Flickr, has been, for this boy snapper, a daily touch of Christmas. It expands upon the rather pointless online quest for mere “likes” and is, instead, a genuine dialogue with other like-minded strange-o’s who want to push the boundaries of at least their own eyes and commiserate with others who long to do the same. The administrators keep Utatans united with periodic, deadline-based homework assignments organized along a a variety of seriously unconventional themes. Some require serious thought. Some can be created almost completely on impulse. And many more fall somewhere in between.
One of the nice bits of insta-fame conferred upon Utatans is having their work occasionally plugged onto the utata.org welcome page. Even better, head honcho Greg Fallis and his fellow guardians of the Utata universe will often provide new captions, poems, or essays of their own for the images, as if to tangibly demonstrate that, just as there is more than one way to see, there are a million ways to be seen. Upon recently conferring home-page status on a rather hurried celphone image I’d posted, Greg also managed to perfectly crystallize thoughts I’ve mulled over recent years:
See, here’s the thing about shooting photographs with your cell phone: it’s not a serious camera. That means you can relax. Try stuff. Shoot something different. Shoot something familiar in a different way. Shoot something different in a familiar way. It’s liberating because it’s “just” your cell phone.
In fact, the image was made in a very short space of time, shorter by far than if I’d made it with my “real” cameras. The original phone selfie was fed through an app designed to mimic both the strengths and weaknesses of antique portrait lenses, and, since I liked the ethereal quality it delivered, I decided to stop. Just stop. Stop fooling, fretting and fixing. Stop, and publish.
So, have I gotten to the point, at least some of the time, when I’m really living that old saw that “the best camera is the one you have with you?” Am I more spontaneous, more open to experiment, higher up the “wot the hell” scale when armed with a cel? Dunno. Really. Not being coy. I definitely still feel that umbilical-cord connection to my trad gear. But I dig immediate gratification as well, at least the gratification of shortening the gap between “wonder what would happen” and “hmm, that kind of worked.”
Is my conventional gear more “real”than my iPhone? Well, how do you define real? Obviously, there is an almost infinite number of post-processing tools available to compensate for whatever shortcomings the cameras themselves might possess. So, if I do advance prep in a DSLR before the shutter snap to ensure a good picture, does it disqualify an image if I snap it first and then enhance it afterwards in a cel? What is a darkroom? What is a workflow?
Big questions. And I don’t always get the same answers when I ask them.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
AS A SON, I am extremely aware that my parents are in the final innings of their particular ballgame, a journey they began nearly sixty-seven years ago and a pairing that has defined their lives along with those of countless others. And, as a photographer, I have come to realize that every phase of Mother and Dad’s time together has produced its own unique visual treasures and challenges.
The images that are made of them these days….congratulatory parties, miraculous birthdays, mythic anniversaries….are repeats of similar occasions spanning decades, even as they are also emotional re-castings of old roles. Such pictures are both records of what has been and chronicles of what remains. For both Mother and Dad, steps do indeed come slower these days, but memories still move at light speed. Physical age and emotional wisdom conduct an ongoing tug-of-war across all their days. Making photographs of this process is tricky.
I know that, when my camera is too visibly present, it creates discomfort for them. For a variety of reasons that may include merely being over it all, they are not keen on the idea of “sitting for portraits”. I can best respect this by seizing other kinds of moments, in other kinds of ways.
Recently, I caught a very lucky break, when they both went to their kitchen window to look over their beloved back yard, the acre lot resplendent with the tree plantings, deck buildings, and family events they’ve staged in it over more than a third of a century. Certainly, I don’t always instantly comprehend the value of a shot in the moment, but this one was obvious enough for even me.
There, in the moment, was the entire marriage in miniature: two people seeking, dreaming, discovering in tandem. No shy faces or self-conscious “say cheese” moments were needed to photograph their twinned hopes, their linked optimism. You can’t see their features, but these two people are unmistakably my parents.
Faces are remarkable documents, but they aren’t the only ones available to a photographer. That’s because there are a million tiny ways for humans to visually register emotional truth, a universe full of little grace moves that, singly or collectively, convey identity. My parents, like everyone’s, are eloquent, even when they do not stare into the camera to make their testimony.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
WHATEVER MARVELS CURRENT TECHNOLOGY ALLOW US TO ACHIEVE IN PHOTOGRAPHY, there is one thing that it can never, ever afford us: the ability to be “present at the creation”, actively engaged at the dawn of an art in which nearly all of its practitioners are doing something fundamental for the very first time. The nineteenth century now shines forth as the most open, experimental and instinctive period within all of photography, peopled with pioneers who achieved things because there was no tradition to discourage them, mapping out the first roads that are now our well-worn highways. It is an amazing, matchless time of magic, risk, and invention.
Much of it was largely mechanical in nature, with the 1800’s marked by rapidly changing technical means for making images, for finding faster recording media and sharper lenses. The true thrill of early photography comes, however, from those who conjured ways of seeing and interpreting the world, rather than merely making a record of it. In some ways, creating a camera
facile enough to fix portraits on glass was easy. compared with the evolving philosophy of how to portray a person, what part of the subject to capture within the frame. And it was in this latter wizardry that Julia Margaret Cameron entered the pantheon of genuine genius.
Born to courtly British comfort in India in 1815, Cameron, largely a hobbyist, was one of the first photographers to move beyond the rigid, lifeless portraits of the era to generate works of investigation into the human spirit. She was technically bound by the same long exposures that made sitting for a picture such torture at the time, but, somehow, even though she endlessly posed, cajoled, and even bullied her subjects into position, she nonetheless achieved an intimacy in her work that the finest studio pros of the early 19th century could not approximate. Far from being put off by the softness that resulted from long exposures, Cameron embraced it, imbuing her shots with a gauzy, ethereal quality, a human look that made most other portraits look like staged lies.
In many cases, Julia Margaret Cameron’s eye has become the eye of history, since many who sat for her, like Charles Darwin, seldom or ever sat again for anyone else, making her view of their greatness the official view. And while she only practiced her craft for a scant fifteen years, no one who hopes to illuminate a personality in a photographic frame can be free of her heavenly mix of soft edges and hard truths.
Extra Credit: for more samples of JMC’s work, take this link to the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Cameron exhibition page:
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHY HAS PRETTY MUCH INHERITED ITS CONCEPTION OF PORTRAITURE FROM THE TRADITIONS OF PAINTING. A portrait, to us, is something done on purpose, with purpose, deliberation, a plan. There is at least an attempt on the part of the photographer to strip away the studied facades of the modern world and reveal something of the real person within. And there is ample evidence that you can come compellingly close to doing just that.
Turn the camera around toward ourselves, however, and we all become liars. Bright, smiling liars.
This is not a burn per se on the current pandemic of “selfies” that litter the internet like crushed beer cans along the highway, although many of them deserve to be burned because they are banal or technically inept. No, the self-portrait process itself, cool camera or cheapie, invites deception, the creation of a mask designed only for public consumption. It is a license to hide.
Can anyone be so self-aware or confident that they are able (or willing) to present something raw and unvarnished for a camera lens in the same way we would seek that authenticity from another subject? Or will we come to the camera as if to the edge of a stage, our makeup and “serious” aspect pasted on for a performance?
Back for a moment to the tselfie tsunami of our current era, it’s easy to see this torrent of poses as play-acting, images that actually prevent us from understanding or knowing each other. You have to ask, at some point, is this how this person sees himself? Far from inviting the viewer deeper inside, selfies act as digital “Do Not Disturb” signs that, in fact, discourage discovery. And yet, let’s not let our brethren with tripods, studio lighting and stern demeanours escape blame, either, as their work can be just as riddled with artifice as any quickie-in-the-mirror Instagram. It’s said that people who act as their own lawyers have fools for clients, and the same holds for anyone who takes his own picture.
This is not necessarily cause for despair. All of photography is, after all, an interpretation of reality, not a representation of it. We don’t discount black & white simply because it doesn’t show the world “as it is”, nor do we rule out the “truth” of pictures made from a host of other techniques that are all, certainly interpretive in nature. So the self-portrait will always be a tough nut to crack.
There is nothing more penetrating than the idea of a camera. But, in the carapace we construct around our all-too-secret souls, it may have met its match.